Initial thoughts on libraries, time, digital things, and oracle bones

Disclaimer(s): I have a lot to read and a lot to learn. I am not with my books so I don’t have citations on hand. Like most digital things i write/share, these are just draft thoughts…

While media studies and cultural studies tend to focus on time together and distance as important points to begin theoretical engagements, my first impression of being in a library is that is a place that does not. Rather than grappling with the effects of time and ruminating on coevalness, the goal of the library is preservation. The notion that “new and cutting edge research”, with lots of citations and impact is key is no longer at play. Instead, a first conversation with a preservationist was about a single object existing in the year 2073. The implied thought was, and forever more after that or for generations to come. I was also able to watch the care that goes into to book restoration, treating it as a precious object that must somehow endure across time.

My initial thought is digital work goes against the central goal of the library. It’s ephemeral nature leaves it probe to disappearance and decontexualization. Though I generally don’t say it explicitly most of my research, writing and work is focused on how do we create spaces of knowledge production with digital tools given the risk that comes from decontexualization and context collapse. This moment of “Fake News” is just as likely to occur as an amazing discovery that previous assumptions didn’t take into account an object that has been digitized by an archive that previously was mostly out of reach. Likewise, when people engage in digital spaces they are risking themselves to various types of exposure and surveillance.

But this moment I am obsessed with an object..

Columbia has Oracle bones. They were digitized in 3D and are available online but require a special viewer. You can see pictures at http://www.cadal.cn/special/oraclebones/index.html

And wikipedia has a thing on them too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle_bone

I am probably fetishizing presence and coevalness. However, as far as how I move through the world, I tend to think that each moment is its own thing and the places and things we are together with are as meaningful as we allow them to be. I was with the Oracle Bones. This thing that was once part of a living create, that then was taken by another human 3000 years ago and written on because it had a divine destiny existed with me for a moment in time, in all of its fragility from 3000 years of existence. Unlike a museum, in a library there is no glass. There is you and the object of curiosity. These moments take my breath away. I have them with digital discovery too, but mainly with photographs. Perhaps it is just me being attached to those human connections that are able to exist across time. I feel a similar way when I encounter a well read older book. Let me stop this tangent…

The temporality of the digital can never capture the fragility of physical objects. This is something I am always thinking about because we experience the digital as a non physical thing, ignoring that even the digital is composed of many objects that will also deteriorate and disappear over time. It also contains its own obsolescence. Digital things are, by the nature of how we use remediated digital content, designed to exist on a screen or server or other object designed to display the digital object temporarily before the screen, action, etc disappears or moves on to the next thing. For me, rather than being a tool of in perpetuity the digital, then, is something that adds time to the physical objects it remediates. It is capable of allowing new lines of inquiry because it allows place and time to lose their importance. The digital allows for collaboration more easily and across borders. Finally it increases the time a person is has to examine the digital analog object in new digitally enabled ways to create new knowledge.

Remediation and its implications are so important, especially in terms of being able to understand digital time for me. I think this is where the disconnect that I have to suture in my work exists. Libraries are about linear time in a very meaningful way. A thing existed, and it should exist forward in time as it is. The digital, as a medium that only ever remediates and often reduces fidelity, is about time that is more cyclical and sometimes circular. It is about creation with built in destruction and disappearance. If a digital thing is to exist in linear time it must be redone as technologies evolve or the aesthetic qualities or even the ability to access things as they were disappears. In addition to this, the forgotten encounter with a digital object is are revisited or stored in cache, algorithms, and browsing histories by machines. But these digital objects add time to the physical objects.

Despite all of this, digital objects reduce the natural decay that is part of physical existence. The oracle bones, fragile and more broken than when they were first used after 3000 years, have a new life as digital objects. There is knowledge and deep engagement that is not time or place dependant. And they can sit in their boxes in climate controlled rooms, only to come out by request, and even then only for a moment. But these moments allow for a connection to knowledge and experience across time, and serve as a reminder that even if there is a digital switch that could be turned off tomorrow objects endure, just as we humans do thus far.

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